What is a Carbon Footprint?

By:Marty T. Neese

January 9, 2017

You can make the planet a healthier place by committing to reducing your carbon footprint in 2017 and beyond.

Editor’s Note: In 2020, SunPower announced the completion of the strategic spin-off of its manufacturing division into a separate business named Maxeon Solar Technologies, Ltd. As a result, SunPower has expanded its offerings to drive future growth. The SunPower Equinox® system now offers multiple panel options, including front- and back-contact panels, all of which are responsibly and rigorously quality tested to provide the best energy solution for your home. Learn more about the differences in panel technology.

The arrival of a new year usually has everyone resolving to shed excess things and start anew. Maybe it’s pounds gained from holiday indulgences. Maybe it’s sheer “stuff,” extra possessions that seem to have multiplied after a season of gift exchanges.

While kicking off 2017 with promises to eat healthy or live more simply is a great start, have you ever thought about resolving to reduce the environmental impact that your lifestyle has on the planet?

We’re talking about your carbon footprint. Although carbon dioxide, a colorless, odorless gas known as CO2, occurs naturally in the atmosphere as part of the life cycle of oceans, soil, plants and animals, human activities are causing harmful amounts to be released into the environment. The resulting greenhouse gas effect is causing climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the majority of human-related carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil), the decay of solid waste and the combustion of wood products.  In 2014, CO2 from human activities accounted for 81 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The three main sources of carbon pollution in the U.S. are:

  1. Electricity

  2. Transportation

  3. Industry

It’s also important to note the role that methane plays when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities, according to the EPA. In 2014, CH4 accounted for about 11 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. And, livestock and their byproducts are responsible for 51 percent of CO2 emissions worldwide.

Why is it so important to reduce our carbon footprint? More than 6 million deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution, according to a recent New York Times report.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Dioxide Footprint

Did you know that a family of four with two cars and a 2,000-square-foot house in Northern California could generate more than 106 tons of CO2 a year, depending on how many airplane trips they take and other factors, including how much food they consume? (Check out how you compare by plugging in your numbers to this carbon footprint calculator tool.)

While you might feel like one family can’t do much to solve global warming, if everyone were to live their lives more sustainably, collectively we could make a difference in the health of our planet, especially when it comes to the air we breathe.

So get started by calculating your carbon footprint. Many of your daily activities, such as throwing away trash instead of recycling, or running the air conditioner instead of opening a window, can impact your household’s carbon footprint.

Then, make a commitment to reduce your footprint. Here are some steps you can take:

Go solar

Of all forms of renewable energy, solar is considered to be one of the best solutions when it comes to reducing the world’s reliance on electricity sources that cause carbon pollution. Solar energy requires no combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity. This is good news because in 2014, about 37 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions and about 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from burning fossil fuels for purposes such as heating homes and buildings. A home with an 8.6-kilowatt solar system avoids the emission of approximately 9,600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year.

For comparison, this amount of carbon dioxide is the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from driving a passenger car 10,000 miles or to burning 4,650 pounds of coal.

If you can’t go solar, there are many things you can still do to make your home more energy efficient, whether it be investing in ENERGY STAR® certified energy efficient appliances or weatherproofing your windows. (Learn more in this post about reducing your electric bill.) You can also choose to patronize businesses that have made the switch to renewable energy.

Riding a bicycle instead of driving keeps harmful carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Spend less time in your car

Most cars and trucks use gasoline and diesel to transport people and goods, and this accounts for about 31 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions. Consider biking to work (find 45,003 mapped miles of cycling routes via the U.S. Bicycle Route System), walking to the grocery store, or taking public transportation. You could also drive an electric vehicle. SunPower has a partnership with Ford that offers rebates to EV owners who go solar, and we’ll donate money to The Sierra Club on your behalf.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

The industries that produce the goods and raw materials that we use every day are one of the three main contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than throwing glass or aluminum in the trash, take advantage of local recycling programs. Recycling one good into another means you’re reducing your reliance on new products that add more waste to our landfills.

SunPower is committed to being a responsible corporate citizen, and we’re the first and only solar company to earn the National Science Foundation’s Sustainability Landfill-Free verification for our module assembly sites. This honor requires at least 99 percent of a site’s waste to be diverted from landfills.  We’ve also offered PV Takeback and Recycling to our customers and led the industry in creating a U.S. Solar PV Recycling Network.

Our philosophy is to make our solar panels as sustainable as the clean energy they produce and to ensure that our installations benefit the environment by leaving it better off than how we found it.

Bowl of Brussels Sprouts

Make conscious food choices

Just like working out and getting in shape, conscious food choices start with one meal at a time.  Try weaving in just one vegetarian meal a day. If you like the results, consider eating veggie for a whole day or week. Forming healthy food habits will help our animal friends and the planet.

Small choices add up to huge collective reductions in our collective footprint.